Cross-Country, Part 8 (Bonus!)

Finally the end.  Or was it?

We’d driven most of the way across the United States.  Then we spent a week in Phoenix, Arizona.  However, we weren’t completely done.  Our rental home agreement ended two days before our return flight so we needed to spend a little time somewhere else.  Originally my wife figured we could go down to Tucson.   Instead we completed the cross-country journey by heading towards San Diego on Interstate 8.  I explained some of that in an earlier episode so I won’t repeat how we came to that decision.  Nonetheless it appended a bonus segment onto the trip and a few more things to talk about

Yuma Territorial Prison

Prison Cells

Very few communities of any size existed anywhere between Phoenix and San Diego (map).  In fact, pretty much only Yuma stood out.  It rose from the desert just on the Arizona side of the line, about half-way along our six hour drive.  That made it a perfect place to stop and stretch our legs.

Originally I wanted to cross into México at the Andrade – Los Algodones border station a few miles west of Yuma.  Looking at Los Algodones on Google Street View (image), it seemed the town existed primarily to provide cheap medical services and pharmaceuticals to retirees from the United States.  I figured we’d walk around, maybe grab some lunch and perhaps some souvenirs.  I even brought our passports.  My wife never felt comfortable with the idea and she vetoed it at the last moment, probably for good reasons.

So we made do with what we could find in Yuma.  A quick search of the Intertubes turned up the Yuma Territorial Prison.  I’ve visited old prisons before so it seemed like a worthy place to spend an hour or two.  The prison opened in 1876 — long before Arizona statehood — and housed prisoners until 1909.  The strangest bit of trivia I discovered there was that the local high school sports team calls itself the Criminals as a result (photo).


Dunes

Dunes

I’d never driven this particular stretch of interstate before so it came as quite a surprise when we crossed into California and the terrain transformed into a sea of sand.  We’d entered the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area.  Nobody can say definitively how this feature formed.  However, a prevailing theory focused on sands that blew from the beach of an inland lake that existed when the Colorado River took a different course than it does today.  Regardless, it seemed out of place and somewhat otherworldly.  Lots of people seemed to be having a good time running their dune buggies up and over the hillsides though.


Plenty of Rest

Rest Below Sea Level

Twelve Mile Circle once bemoaned the decline of public restrooms along interstate highways.  That didn’t seem to be a problem along I-8.  Few services and fewer towns within this desolate stretch pretty much necessitated them.  Oddly, by some strange set of circumstances, we ended up stopping at all four of them on Interstate 8; two heading west and two returning east.

My favorite rest stop had to have been the one in California’s Imperial Valley (map).   This spot happened to be located remarkably close — barely more than a mile — from the lowest overland elevation in the entire interstate highway system.  This would put it at about 50 feet (16 metres) below sea level.

We crossed the valley and then headed up into the Laguna Mountains. There we encountered another anomaly, one of the widest splits between opposing lanes on a U.S. highway.  Interstate 8 sure packed a lot of entertainment into such an “empty” stretch, at least for those of us fascinated by weird geography.


San Diego

Bea-Eater Birds at the San Diego Zoo

Finally we dropped down from the mountains and reached the Pacific Ocean at San Diego.  The drive truly became cross-country.  The next day we returned to Phoenix and then flew home the following morning.

Now the trip ended.


Articles in the Cross-Country Series:

  1. The Plot Thickens
  2. Weatherford Art Thou?
  3. County Counting
  4. Zoos & Brews
  5. The Eastern Half
  6. The Western Half
  7. A Week in Phoenix
  8. Bonus!

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

Cross-Country, Part 6 (The Western Half)

The first half of the drive seemed almost routine as it ran through terrain familiar to a lifelong resident of the eastern part of the United States.  However we still had a couple of days to go and began moving into unfamiliar territory.  Here I captured a wide swath of previously unvisited counties straight through the heart of Texas and into southern New Mexico and Arizona.

The Weather  Turns

Rainbow West of Abilene

My son and I joked that each new day seemed to bring a different form of precipitation.  We hadn’t encountered anything serious, a little drizzle, some patchy freezing fog, a few snow flurries and an overnight shower as we slept in our hotel room.   That changed once we pushed into central Texas.  We couldn’t visit the Abilene Zoo as the first waves of torrential rain rolled over us.  I can’t recall ever experiencing a thunderstorm in late December before, although I’d rarely strayed this far south during the Christmas season either.  We’d left the freezing cold far behind us days earlier and conditions changed in favor of turbulent weather.

The 170 mile (275 km) stretch from Abilene to Odessa (map) quickly became a formidable driving challenge.  Speeds dropped way down as a matter of safety and I came close to pulling over and waiting it out a couple of times.  Then we’d catch a break for ten or fifteen miles before hitting the next wave.  Still, I felt lucky.  At least we weren’t on the frozen side of the storm.  This same weather pattern pulling moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and dumping water on us created an epic blizzard farther north in Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas.  Plus, we caught some wonderful rainbows during breaks in the action.


Petroleum and Nowhere

Outside of Van Horn

The central to western part of Texas seemed almost featureless, both monotonously flat and completely empty.  We’d traversed the Permian Basin, the heart of the Mid-Continent Oil Field.  Actually, it did have some features.  However, they were all man-made.  In every direction, as far as the eye could see, stretched an endless array of oil wells and related equipment.  Everyone in Midland and Odessa seemed to drive the same white pickup truck with a company logo tied to the petroleum  industry.  Dust and tumbleweeds swirled around us as we pushed through the back side of the storm.  I’m sure local residents loved the setting although it seemed remarkably bleak to me.  Surely, minus the the jobs in the oil field, few people would choose to live there willingly.

The terrain  changed again as we approached Van Horn, Texas (map), where we stayed overnight after the fourth day.  This was the only town of any size in any direction in this remote corner of the state.  Van Horn had a captive audience of travelers on Interstate 10, and knew it.  With no other place to stay before El Paso, another 120 miles (190 km) away, hotels could charge pretty much whatever they wanted.  We paid more here than any other place during our entire trip; and double the rate of a similar hotel room in Arkansas a couple of nights earlier.


Setting Politics Aside

EL Paso Zoo

We headed towards El Paso the next morning.  News stories that week talked incessantly about the border between Mexico and the United States, and whether a wall should be built.   I did my best to ignore the clatter although I got an immediate reminder as we entered the city and drove towards the zoo.  We took Rt 375 (map), the loop that ran directly along the international separation.  Metal fencing and border patrol agents separated the two countries pretty much completely.  Nonetheless, we could easily peer over the fence as we drove by, into the crowded neighborhoods in Ciudad Juárez one the other side .

I put it out of my mind.  Twelve Mile Circle isn’t a politics blog.  We enjoyed the zoo which seemed a thousand miles away from the controversy even though it sat barely a few hundred feet within the U.S.


Completing the Quest

Saguaro Cacti

We crossed New Mexico and pushed into Arizona without much excitement.  The first sighting of cacti signaled the impending end of our journey.  Saguaro grow only in the Sonoran desert, so only in southern Arizona for the U.S. portion of its range.  We rolled into Phoenix where we prepared to stay for a week.


Articles in the Cross-Country Series:

  1. The Plot Thickens
  2. Weatherford Art Thou?
  3. County Counting
  4. Zoos & Brews
  5. The Eastern Half
  6. The Western Half
  7. A Week in Phoenix
  8. Bonus!

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

Cross-Country, Part 5 (The Eastern Half)

We actually did a lot more than collect new counties and visit zoos.  After all, we sat in a car for five days!  I needed to stop every couple of hours to stretch my legs.  Sometimes we timed our layovers to see something interesting and sometimes things had a way of finding us.  The open road worked like that.

Crossing the First Border

Welcome to Tennessee

We began our drive well before sunrise and watched the first rays of light as we approached Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.  I’ve always hated driving on Interstate 81.  It always seems choked with trucks and I wanted to avoid the hassle.  Leaving early worked as I expected.  We rolled down the valley under clear skies and nothing remarkable happened during the several hours it took to exit the state.

The first border slipped behind us as we passed Bristol and crossed into Tennessee.  There we exited at a rest stop, thankful for its existence, and marked the completion of our initial leg.  The journey continued onward another couple of hours before we finished our first day at Knoxville.  Clouds formed as we toured the Knoxville Zoo in a cold mist.  The next morning we drove through freezing fog on the way to Nashville, with an icy shroud covering trees, although conditions improved the rest of the way into Memphis.

Virginia and Tennessee stretched on forever.  Only those two states separated Washington, DC from Memphis, a distance of 870 miles (1,400 km).  That seemed like an amazingly long distance until we reached Texas later.


The Grand Guitar

The Grand Guitar

I noticed something weird when we pulled over at that first rest stop when we entered Tennessee. A building shaped like a giant guitar (map) stood across the highway.  I took a photo of it and I vowed to scour the Internet when I got a chance.

As it turned out, I’d encountered The Grand Guitar, which had its own entry on Roadside America.  An entrepreneur named Joe Morrell built this masterpiece shaped like a Martin Dreadnought acoustic guitar in 1983.  Inside, he placed a recording studio, a country music radio station, and his collection of musical instruments.  The building fell into disarray after his death although the National Register of Historic Places still recognized it in 2014.  Rumors of restoration floated around various websites although I saw no signs of that as we gazed upon the dilapidated structure.


Always Time for a Geo-Oddity

The Texarkana Post Office

We stopped overnight at Forrest City, Arkansas — a little west of Memphis — on Christmas Eve.  Only one place seemed to be open for dinner that evening, a Mexican restaurant sharing a lobby with a one-story motel.  A chimichanga and a margarita seemed oddly appropriate at that moment.

Christmas morning dawned and we followed a southwestern diagonal through Arkansas.  We took a short detour from the interstate as we approached the Texas state line and drove into central Texarkana. There were actually two Texarkanas, cojoined twins on opposite sides of the Texas-Arkansas border.  However they so completely intertwined that they appeared as one.  We took State Line Avenue  where the boundary ran down the middle of the road.  Southbound lanes fell on the Texas side and northbound ones in Arkansas.

We reached our goal, the main post office and courthouse shared by the portmanteau cities. (map)  Naturally we found no trouble parking directly in front of the building on a holiday.  One other group had the same idea so we swapped chances to take photos of our families split by a state border.


Christmas Dinner

Christmas at Waffle House

Then we pressed onward, driving through a rainy Dallas on our way to Weatherford, Texas where we stopped for the night.  Christmas Dinner would be an adventure.  Once again we had very few options.  The local Waffle House seemed to be the best choice.

Waffle House famously never closes.  Not only was the Waffle House in Weatherford open, it was packed with diners and fully staffed for the onslaught.  People filled every booth and we felt lucky to find even two empty seats at the counter.  I wouldn’t go all the way and call this is our new holiday tradition although we certainly made the best of it.  Breakfast for dinner on Christmas?  Why not.


Articles in the Cross-Country Series:

  1. The Plot Thickens
  2. Weatherford Art Thou?
  3. County Counting
  4. Zoos & Brews
  5. The Eastern Half
  6. The Western Half
  7. A Week in Phoenix
  8. Bonus!

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr